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When DWP Needed Special Masks, DIY To The Rescue

Francisco Villalobos Casillas runs the LA DWP upholstery shop, which has been repurposed to sew hundreds of fire-resistant masks each day for workers who tend high-tension power lines. (Courtesy LA DWP)
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When your job is repairing high-tension electrical wires, state work safety laws say you need a fire-resistant mask these pandemic days. But masks made with special fabric to resist sparks are in desperately short supply.

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To outfit its workers, the L.A. Department of Water and Power got creative.

Dave Hanson, assistant director of power, construction and maintenance for the utility, oversees some 3,000 employees who climb power poles and work on high tension wires. And it's not solitary work; there can be another person up in the cherry picker bucket.

So when Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a citywide order that people working around others must wear face coverings, it fell to Hanson's department to find a supply.

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But where to get enough fire-resistant masks amid a national shortage?

"A lot of our orders that we placed were being redirected and rerouted to New York," the epicenter of all the protective equipment supply shortages, Hanson said. It could take weeks to get even the first order filled.

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But then the light bulb switched on.

"We remembered we had an upholstery shop here at Main street," he said.

That's where Francisco Villalobos Casillas - the only upholsterer on the city payroll -- repairs car and truck seats.

"When they asked me if we can produce something in-house, I thought, yeah, I just need a few things," Villalobos Casillas said. One of those was fabric.

But Hanson said fire-resistant fabric was also in short supply. They ended up re-purposing a back-up supply of new work clothes.

"We cut up shirts and pants and handkerchiefs that we had in hand," Hanson said.

And now the DWP upholstery shop is turning out about 200 fire-resistant masks a day.